Food Stamp Use Soars in Palmetto State

July 9, 2014

Investigative Reports

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Food StampsGov. Nikki Haley wasn’t bashful when news broke that the state’s unemployment rate had fallen to 5.3 percent in April – the lowest rate in 13 years, as proudly noted by the Republican governor.

“This kind of progress says a lot about our state, our workforce, and all the businesses that call South Carolina home that continue to grow and find success here,” Haley said in a prepared statement following the announcement by the state Department of Employment and Workforce.

But Haley, who took office in January 2011, hasn’t talked publicly about a set of not-so-good economic numbers involving a different Cabinet agency.

From fiscal years 2009 through 2013, the average monthly number of S.C. residents receiving food stamps – a federal program administered in South Carolina by the state Department of Social Services – skyrocketed to 875,866 from 687,508, a jump of 188,358, or 27 percent, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) online records show.

South Carolina’s fiscal 2013 monthly average placed it 21st in the country for that year, sandwiched between New Jersey (876,266) and Kentucky (872,439), a review by The Nerve found.

USDA records on the food stamp program, formally called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, give other sobering statistics about the Palmetto State’s reliance on federal dollars to help feed its residents. From fiscal years 2009 through 2013:

  • Total food stamp benefits shot up a gross 38 percent, to $1.38 billion from $1 billion;
  • The average monthly number of participating households in the food stamp program jumped 38 percent, to 416,724 from 302,450; and
  • The average monthly food-stamp benefit per person increased to $131.47 from $121.42, ranking South Carolina 17th among states in fiscal 2013, The Nerve’s review found.

The numbers don’t surprise Sue Berkowitz, director of the nonprofit South Carolina Appleseed Legal Justice Center in Columbia.

“The recovery is misleading,” Berkowitz said when contacted this week by The Nerve. “What nobody is willing to talk about is that while more people may be working, they are working for a lot less.”

“If you go to the food banks,” she continued, “you will see a lot of people who are working who are just not making enough money. It’s great to say more people are going to work, but people are not making a living.”

The Nerve on Tuesday sent written questions to Doug Mayer, Haley’s chief spokesman, seeking comment on the USDA figures for South Carolina, but received no response.

In fiscal year 2013, the S.C. Department of Social Services’ total ratified budget was nearly $2.14 billion, including federal funds for food stamps. But for the fiscal year that started last week, the agency’s total budget is about $658.5 million, state budget records show.

So what accounted for the approximately $1.5 billion drop?

It was a simple accounting move on paper: In its budget for last fiscal year, DSS noted that it was transferring $1.5 billion in federal food-stamp assistance payments to an “unbudgeted account,” thereby reducing the agency’s total listed budget, as The Nerve first reported in March 2013.

“This is a federal U.S. Department of Agriculture expense,” agency spokeswoman Marilyn Matheus said then in a written response to The Nerve about the budget change. “Food stamp funds are never in the custody of DSS.”

“After this change,” Matheus continued, “only those federal monies that DSS will actually have in its custody and that DSS will actually make expenditures of will be budgeted for in the DSS budget.”

The Nerve in March asked Matheus for the most recent figures on food stamp payments in South Carolina but received no response. The Nerve on Tuesday repeated the request in writing, plus asked Matheus about whether the large increase in food stamp use in recent years played any role in the agency’s decision to exclude food stamp payments as a line item in its annual budget.

No response was given by publication of this story.

Reach Brundrett at (803) 254-4411 or rick@thenerve.org. Follow him on Twitter @thenerve_rick. Follow The Nerve on Facebook and Twitter @thenervesc.